- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the entertainment lives of families, provides reviews of the latest movies from a parenting perspective. For more reviews, click on commonsensemedia.org.

‘Charlotte’s Web’

Rating: G for general audiences. On.

Common Sense Media: Pause. For ages 5 and older.

***** (out of five stars)

Running time: 97 minutes

Common Sense review: Here’s a welcome surprise: A children’s movie that’s thoughtful, entertaining and enchanting. This newest big-screen version of “Charlotte’s Web,” based on E.B. White’s 1952 Newbery Medal-winning book, mixes performances by real-life actors and animals with animated mouths, slipping gracefully into the world of the barnyard without ever doubting its magic.

At the movie’s start, young Fern Arable (Dakota Fanning) watches piglets being born. When she sees that her father (Kevin Anderson) seems about to kill the “runt,” Fern insists that he let her take care of the pig. Fern dedicates herself to rearing the piglet, whom she names Wilbur.

As cute as these early scenes are (especially little Fern snuggled up in her bed with Wilbur), it’s after Fern admits that Wilbur has grown too large to carry along — leading to his sale to farmer Homer Zuckerman (Gary Basaraba) — that the film takes a turn into still more delightful fantasy. That’s when Wilbur begins to talk to his new acquaintances in Zuckerman’s barn.

At first, the other animals — including geese Gussy (Oprah Winfrey) and Golly (Cedric the Entertainer), cows Bitsy and Betsy (Kathy Bates and Reba McEntire), Ike the horse (Robert Redford) and Samuel the sheep (John Cleese) — are standoffish. They’re reluctant to befriend the “spring pig,” who’s fated to be served up as the humans’ Christmas dinner. But Wilbur (voiced by 10-year-old Dominic Scott Kay) is so affable that they’re soon won over.

Luckily, Wilbur also makes friends with Charlotte A. Cavatica (Julia Roberts), the spider who spins her webs in the barn doorway. Charlotte decides she’ll find a way to save Wilbur’s life. So begins the series of words she weaves into her web, describing what she sees in her young friend. Because these words seem like “miracles” to the humans, Wilbur gains some status in the community.

Wilbur learns a variety of lessons from his fellow animals (who are partly CGI animated, partly live), including the ever-muttering, ever-angling Templeton the rat (Steve Buscemi).

Common Sense note: Parents need to know that the younger crowd probably will be very eager to see this one — and for good reason. It’s unusually respectful of its much-loved source (E.B. White’s classic novel) and its young audience. Though the movie does refer to the farmer’s plan to kill Wilbur for Christmas dinner, the pivotal (and most potentially upsetting) moment is the death of a central character, which is followed by appropriate mourning and recovery by her barnyard friends.

Some of the animal characters are unfriendly initially to a new arrival.

Families can talk about how the different characters learn to accept one another. How do they come to see one another as friends even though at first they’re put off by their differences? Why does Charlotte want to help Wilbur? If you have read the book, how does the movie compare to what you imagined in your head? Families also can discuss the importance of words and their role in the film. How are words important for communicating, even between species? How do they help shape our impressions of others?

Sexual content: Charlotte gives birth (no mention of how she ended up having babies).

Violence alert: Minor slapstick and sense of threat when crows chase the rat; minor disturbance when the rat’s rotten egg explodes; allusions to Wilbur’s imminent fate as Christmas dinner (use of the word “bacon” and ominous shots of the “cure house”); a central character dies (peacefully), and the others mourn the character’s loss.

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